People of African descent have a long history in America, arriving on her shores even before the Mayflower. Though over the next 250 years most African Americans were enslaved, a sizeable number were free and were able to achieve the American dream of entrepreneurial success. In 1841, William Liedsdoroff, a Virgin Islands native and San Francisco hotelier and educator, became the nation’s first black millionaire. In the early 1900’s Madam C.J. Walker became the first African American woman to earn this distinction, and many have followed in their footsteps.
African Americans also have a long history here at Harvard. The Law School graduated its first black student in 1869, and Harvard College followed in 1870. The business school’s first African American graduate was Monroe Dowling, class of 1931. Upon arrival on campus, he faced a unique situation: racial segregation meant that there was nowhere for him to eat or sleep. Though accommodation was ultimately found, he endured two years of isolation and separation at HBS, and chose a career in federal government because none of the usual recruiting options were open to him.
H. Naylor Fitzhugh is probably the best known of the African American pioneers at Harvard. He studied science and graduated with honors from Harvard College in 1931. Success in a summer sales job led him to HBS the following year, but despite a stellar academic record, upon graduation he was ignored by recruiters. He opted to return to Washington, DC, working as an independent salesman for a printing company targeting the black community.
His frustration with the refusal of major companies who did business in the African American community to hire residents led him to co-found a movement to change company policies. His ongoing work as a community activist also provided him the opportunity to teach a business course at Howard University, a historically black institution. A thirty-year career in academia ensued as Fitzhugh built the university’s business program, introducing a marketing department and introducing young black people to the business world.
In 1965, he decided to take a position with Pepsi-Cola spearheading the first marketing campaign targeted to African Americans. During his nine years at Pepsi, Fitzhugh was responsible for developing the concept of target marketing and for establishing the mass market potential of the black community.
It is because of this legacy and his role as a trailblazer and mentor that the African American Student Union (AASU) has named its annual February conference after F. Naylor Fitzhugh.